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Carnival Warehouse Interviews: Jennifer Horvath, Executive Producer/Co-creator, Carnival Eats
Making Fair Food the Star: Carnival Eats Returns From Pandemic Hiatus because

Carnival Eats
Carnival Eats goes to where the food is the midway, filming onsite fair food production at dozens of events every year

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Ferris Wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls, headline entertainment, petting zoos and agricultural exhibits – so many moving parts make any fair run – but the agreed upon main attraction for the majority of fairgoers – both perennials and newbies – is food.

No wonder that since 2014, midway cuisine has been a reality television star playing a titular role in Carnival Eats, reportedly one of the top three shows on the Cooking Channel/Food Network, which is distributed to nearly 100 million U.S. households and draws over 46 million unique web users.

Every week, Carnival Eats showcases the distinctive dishes served up exclusively at fairs, festivals and other outdoor events throughout the U.S. and Canada. Hosted by the engaging and charismatic Noah Cappe, Carnival Eats is a travel and food television program providing an onsite look into the infinitely vast array of midway food and the even more diverse and endlessly entertaining cast of food professionals specializing in feeding fairgoers continent-wide.

Cappe is the Anthony Bourdaine of the midway, and Carnival Eats makes memorable programming by celebrating the fact a fair is a Foodie destination like no other. “At The Big Fresno Fair we pride ourselves in having one of the most diverse Fair food line-ups,” said Stacy Rianda, Deputy Manager, The Big Fresno Fair. “To have a show like Carnival Eats come out and feature our amazing food vendors, our Fair and our community on a national level – it was exciting and an honor.”

Big Fresno was one the nearly 200 fairs featured by Carnival Eats since the program first aired. The episode, filmed in 2019, was broadcasted last June, during Season 9. The COVID pandemic disrupted the entire fair industry – the 2020 Big Fresno Fair, like hundreds of others was cancelled – as well as the production schedule of Carnival Eats, leaving many to wonder if the this food & travel documentary program will survive for a Season 10.

To answer these and other questions, Carnival Warehouse talked with Jennifer Horvath, one of the creators and currently writer/producer of Carnival Eats. Hoverath is Executive Producer at  Alibi Entertainment, a Canadian-based media company where she oversees the production of its factual programs. In a candid and in-depth email interview, Hoverath discussed the present and future of Carnival Eats as well as its past – how did 21st century midway cuisine become a Food Network sensation?

Carnival Warehouse: First things first – the question everybody wants to know the answer to – will Carnival Eats be renewed for a Season 10?

Jennifer Horvath: We were in the midst of filming season 9 when the pandemic started, so we still have eight episodes left to complete of our original order of 13. It's almost impossible to predict what will happen with any show in terms of renewals BUT we have every reason to be hopeful that we'll get a season 10!

View The Carnival Eats Season 9 Promo

CW: What has been the impact of COVID and the cancellation of outdoor events on the program?

JH: We were so lucky that our broadcasters agreed to put the show on hiatus rather than cancelling it. Noah and our crew have been waiting to resume filming but we expect to pick right up where we left off. We started filming some of Season 9 in 2019, and were actually right in the midst of an episode when the pandemic shut things down. We managed to deliver five new episodes for Season 9 which have been airing, so some of that was filmed in early 2020.

CW: Approximately how many fairs do you visit per season?

JH: Right now, it's about 20 fairs a season. We will film segments for two different episodes at some of the biggest fairs. We feature seven foods in each episode, but we will sometimes film multiple segments with the same vendor at one fair. We have been lucky enough to film with some vendors over multiple seasons.

CW: How did the idea for the show originate?

JH: James Hyslop, the president of our production company, Alibi Entertainment originally had the idea for a show about the science behind carnival rides - how they're built and designed to be set up and torn down, shipped across the country, etc. He couldn't get any networks interested in that concept, but the folks at Food Network Canada were interested in carnival food. They commissioned the pilot for the series, and then it was picked up by Cooking Channel.

CW: Was it difficult to sell the show to the network? Did you have to overcome preconceptions about fair food being limited to corn dogs?

JH: Getting a television series made requires a lot of luck - you have to have the right concept at the right time, and the right talent attached to it. We were able to put all those things together for the pilot. I think the biggest doubt was that there were enough fairs to do more than one season. But once we put together research on all the state fairs, county fairs, street festivals, harvest fairs, Renaissance fairs, rodeos, etc. we were able to convince our broadcast partners that the series had legs.

CW: The fun of eating fair food shines through with each episode. It's genuine and engaging. Why do you feel you're able to accomplish this?

JH: That is such a lovely compliment to get, because that's really what we're going for. Especially right now, people want to watch television that makes them happy and our show aims to do that. I want viewers to end up with a smile on their faces, even if not all the food appeals to them in that episode. We have a magic formula of fun events that remind people of their childhood, or good times they spent with friends at a fair, a host that is genuinely excited and engaged every day he's on set and food that looks delicious! I can't say enough about Noah - he makes everyone feel comfortable so we're able to get their best performance on camera, he can talk to anyone so the patrons are able to share their experience of the food and he definitely loves eating. Even if it's not his favorite, he can find something positive to say about any food.

CW: Noah Cappe is so amazing in his role as host. His interaction with the vendors is so engaging. He has that special charisma that makes others shine. Is the show scripted at all or is everything impromptu?

JH: Only the narration is scripted - everything on camera is impromptu. Noah is so quick on his feet - he always has something fun to bring to each scene.

CW: Can you give me an idea of how you research and select the foods that the show features. I read in an article where Noah praised your research team. What is the process behind the creation of each episode?

JH: Noah is right that we have a great research team! Selecting the foods and the fairs is a very complicated process that has a lot of moving parts. We usually start with the fairs. Based on our production schedule, we look at which events are happening on a month by month basis. We have been to 190 fairs in 40 states, but so far we haven't gone to the same fair twice and I'd love to keep that going. We're also really interested in events in some of the states we haven't been to yet like Vermont and Rhode Island but haven't found any that work - yet! We also have a pretty tight budget so usually we need to find at least two events that are a drive away from each other so that we can make the most of our time in that area.

Once the research team has identified potential locations, we call the fair's organizers and try to convince them to let us film there. If we get permission to film, we then start calling all the vendors. Getting that vendor list is the most important part for us, because reaching everyone on the list and talking about the foods they're offering can be quite time consuming. Vendors don't always answer a phone call from Canada so it can take some time for us to connect. From there, we'll talk to each vendor to gauge their interest and what they have on offer. We don't always find enough vendors or foods to make a location work, and since we need to make travel arrangements and coordinate with other events, we usually have a cut off of three weeks prior to the fair to make a call on whether or not it's a go for us.
As far as the foods, it really depends. Sometimes vendors have something brand new they're excited about, or they offer that one item a fair is famous for. Other times, our research team of 2-3 people will work with the vendors to come up with something that we've developed at our office or that we've seen somewhere else that we think that vendor could make based on their equipment and expertise. Not all vendors want to experiment and we get it, but after filming 770 foods we need stuff that will stand out in some way. It's not all crazy over the top, it could be based on an old family recipe, something locally grown, or a regional specialty. Once we have enough food items, we write up a pitch that we submit to the network. Ultimately, our network exec at Cooking Channel is the one who gives us the green light to proceed.

There is some variation to this - sometimes vendors will tell us about the events they're traveling to next, or we know that we're going to be in a certain area. Occasionally fairs reach out to us which we LOVE because then we know that we've cleared the first hurdle which is getting permission to film somewhere! We generally try and limit the road trips to 3 weeks at a time. We bring the crew home for a week or two to see their partners and do their laundry before sending them out again. In years where we've had two seasons back to back, those guys can be on the road 200 days a year.

CW: What's the trickiest thing about filming onsite on a midway?

JH: I don't think I had any idea of how tricky it would be to film at a fair! We have learned a lot over the years. We always film the cooking process with the vendors before the fair is actually open so that they're not losing any business, and it's a little quieter. Of course there are always deliveries, sound checks, cattle auctions and any kind of noise issue that can pop up, will. What makes it manageable for us is knowing about it in advance and being able to control as much of it as possible which means sometimes a sound check is delayed by half an hour or the music is turned off on the grounds while we're filming. We will build our schedule around things that simply can't be stopped or made quieter. Fortunately we have been able to build great relationships with fair organizers and amusement providers, and they know that we're trying to keep interruption of business to a minimum. It means our crew is usually up very early for a 5am or 6am start time but we really have it down to a science after 9 seasons.

CW:  Weather is usually the biggest factor determining how successful a fair can be. How does rain or excessive summer heat affect your production?

JH: We have filmed in every kind of weather, from hurricanes and tornadoes to forest fires and unexpected snow storms. We really don't have a lot of wiggle room in our schedule so we will keep shooting as long as the vendors are there. I think there has only been one event that was cancelled completely due to a hurricane. Every other time, we found a way to make it work even if the fair didn't actually open for the day. No one likes working in the cold or the rain, but that's just part of the job. Of course we always try and make it look as sunny and nice in the final edit because that helps create part of the fun atmosphere that viewers respond to. And we want to make every event look as good as possible.

CW: Is Carnival Eats shown in foreign markets or being remade by foreign production companies?

JH: It does air in Canada on Food Network Canada. Right now, we have sold the series to markets in Asia, and countries in Europe like Italy and Germany. So far no one has suggested remaking it in another country - I think the food is so American that it couldn't really be done anywhere else.

CW: In the landscape of foodie media culture, what makes Carnival Eats so unique?

JH: To start off, most traditional fair foods are items that you can only get from a vendor on a midway, at a fair that's happening for a limited amount of time, so people have a lot of nostalgic feelings about corn dogs and funnel cakes which draws them to our show. We've seen with the pandemic that there's a pent up demand for these items. At the same time, there has been a huge explosion in fair food as a genre over the years and I like to think that we had something to do with it! Fairs are now promoting their menus along with rides, exhibitions and other attractions. Some fairs even have a media preview day where reporters get a sneak peak and test taste of the newest items. That's encouraged vendors to think about how they can get some of that attention by creating items that are unique or trend setting. It's a complimentary environment where our show, fair organizers and vendors are all building on each other's successes. We also celebrate the over the top, the deep fried, the indulgent - these aren't the fancy foods that you might see on another show but they are things that make you feel happy eating (or watching someone else eat them!).

Carnival Eats host, Noah Cappe, has become the Anthony Bourdaine of the midway, an engaging companion introducing millions of viewers to the gastronomic delights found at fairs in the U.S. and Canada.
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